Moscow: all grown up and out of vodka?

September 4, 2008

“There is no sex in the USSR.” Things have changed since that famous statement made by a Russian woman during one of the first Russia-U.S. live teleconferences after perestroika. Now that the Soviet Union is gone, sex is back. The sobriety of the late eighties gave way to the fast and the furious nineties, and the after-party’s still going on. In my hometown of Moscow at the beginning of this century, every night was a Friday night. The girls at the office would dress up in sequins and stilettos on the days when the CEO was visiting, and fifty-year-olds went out with college freshmen while their teenage sons canoodled with foreign pop princesses hired for an exorbitant hourly rate.

I have always known Moscow like this. Having left before the party really got going in the mid-90s, I nevertheless made it a point to drop in every now and then to get the sweet breath of freedom which was a welcome break from my stiff boarding school in Britain. Moscow always provided a totally unrestricted existence and an endless supply of shocking stories to be told over countless rounds of never-have-I-ever.

This year, as I worked at my advertising agency internship by day and went out seeking adventures by night, there seemed to be a more somber mood throughout the city. With my evenings quieter, I had time and energy to get to know my colleagues, instead of being slumped over the keyboard in a haze from the night before. During our chats, I found that all but one of my workmates were married or engaged, two of them had children, and one was already happily divorced. The oldest of them was twenty-five. They spent their evenings in cooking dinners to feed their growing families, their Saturdays at the zoo in lieu of sleeping off a monumental clubbing night, and their salaries on the latest eco-summer camps and environmentally-friendly living instead of on live-in lovers and python handbags.

This left me extremely puzzled. Before, I would go out and my fellow night revelers more than lived up to the “Russian girls” stereotype of model looks, conspicuous consumption, and promiscuity. Yet in the office by day, I would be confronted by prudent young women who had a marriage license attached to their graduation diploma. I learned that people had swapped vodka for heart-friendlier wine at bi-weekly office parties and that the corporate summer trip was a sports-packed day with a nine p.m. curfew instead of the usual debauched weekend at a beach. Python bags were collecting dust on the shelves. Were the people of Moscow shedding their recklessly fun personas and the girls swapping night clubs for country clubs?

My answer greeted me as I was packing at the end of August to return to Georgetown. It turned out that the city was not growing up into a boring lull of responsibility: as the summer heat gave way to the cooler breezes of autumn, those who are responsible for putting Moscow on the global party trail returned from their holidays on distant shores. In Beijing the Russia House hosted the loudest parties during the Olympics, while on the beaches of Sardinia and the south of France, Muscovites lived up to their raucous reputation. The fun Russians, sun-kissed and refreshed and whom I’d been missing so much, were finally back from their annual summer tour. The fifteen-year-long party is still going strong.

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